Neuroscience Tells Us How to Hack Our Brains for Success
What’s the secret to success? Some would argue that insanely successful people possess traits like having a vision, showing gratitude, being honest, learning from failure and having a high emotional intelligence.
While these traits definitely play a role, the real secret to success comes down to science, particularly advancements in neuroscience, and how you can condition your brain to achieve your dreams and goals.
The neuroscience of success can get complicated, but it’s really about how your brain functions in three different areas: reticular activating system (RAS), the release of dopamine and your memory. If you’re not a science person, I’ll try and make this all as painless as possible.
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The Reticular Activating System
Located at the base of the brain where it connects with the spinal cord, there’s one of most important parts of the brain: the reticular activating system.
RAS influences cognition and is basically a filter for the roughly eight million bits of information (subconsciously) flowing through our brain. In other words, it eliminates the white noise. When a message gets past the RAS filter it enters the cerebrum and is then converted into conscious thoughts, emotions or even both.
As Ruben Gonzalez, author of The Courage to Succeed, explains, “Even though the cerebrum is the center of thought, it will not respond to a message unless the RAS allows it. The RAS is like Google. There are millions of websites out there, but you filter out the ones you are not interested in simply by typing a keyword.”
So, what messages get through? Pretty much just the ones that are currently important to you. For example, if you’re focused on preparing for a speaking engagement then your RAS is going to filter in the thoughts that are going to make your presentation a success, such as the tools and resources you’ll need to deliver a memorable speech.
As Gonzalez adds, “This means the more you keep your goals ‘top of mind,’ the more your subconscious mind will work to reach them. That’s why writing your goals down every day, visualizing your intended outcome and regularly saying affirmations is so important! Doing those things truly does help you to focus your subconscious mind on what’s important to you.”
Related: The Extraordinary Power of Visualizing Success
Dopamine feedback loops
While RAS can help you focus on the desired outcome you’d like to receive, the release of dopamine is what makes success feel oh-so-good.
As Mark Lukens, founding partner of Method3, wrote recently, “When we succeed at something, our brains release chemical rewards, the most important of which is the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical best known for the role it plays in addiction and drug use.” Dopamine, despite this negative association, “is a natural part of how our brains function, producing the sensation of pleasure whenever you taste coffee or chocolate, or when you achieve a big win.”
Because of this, it makes sense that “dopamine is strongly connected to motivation, driving us to repeat the behaviors that create that rush, even when we aren’t experiencing it.” However, the dopamine response is short-term, but since our brains remember how awesome it was before, we strive to seek it out over and over again.
That’s when dopamine loops enter the picture. After you’ve experienced repeated success the pleasure you initially had gets smaller and smaller. Think of it this way: After you’ve already beaten a video game, it just doesn’t feel as good the second or third time, right? That’s when you seek bigger rewards, like unlocking trophies, new characters or swag when completing a level.
“Under the right circumstances, this can drive us to seek out ever-greater thrills,” adds Lukens. It’s why video game players are constantly engaged, it’s the reason why you check your phone every minute after updating your Facebook status, and it’s what motivates us in accomplishing bigger and better things.
For instance, if your goal was to acquire three new clients within two weeks, then your next goal would be to acquire six new clients in one week. Everything else is the same, except the more challenging, and rewarding, task of doubling your stable of clients. As an added perk, this also helps you weed out the work and goals that aren’t motivating you or your team.
Related: Trigger These 4 Key Brain Chemicals for Happier Workers
Neuroscientists who have studied the way that the brain retrieves memories can also determine success.
Think about that for a second. That time you went mountain biking and had a nasty spill? That was a bad experience that might discourage you from mountain biking again, at least for the foreseeable future. The same is true with starting a business. It failed and now you are more hesitant about taking that risk again.
Scientists, however, found that we can edit those bad memories to remove the negative associations. In fact, this memory therapy is used to treat PTSD sufferers. You can also edit good memories to further propel you towards success.
To weaken bad memories, bring that memory back and then let it get smaller and dimmer, like you’re watching a small black-and-white TV fade out. Once there, insert new details that scramble the memory. For instance, think about the time you bombed while giving a speech or investor pitch. Now just imagine that your audience was dressed in something that made you laugh. Do that five or 10 times and that memory will make you chuckle.
As for strengthening your memories, recall the good memories as bright and loud as possible, like watching a movie in an IMAX theater. Keep adding how that experience made you feel for five or 10 times. You should now feel on-top-of-the-world. Use that to motivate you going forward.
Related: How to Be Grateful When Times Are Tough
Hacks to rewire your brain for success.
The good news is that you can actually rewire your brain to become more successful. In fact, according to neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, it takes just 30 hours of training based on specific neuroscience techniques to improve your memory and cognition, speech patterns and reading comprehension.
I know. That may sound like a lot. But, that’s just an hour a day for a month to achieve life-long success. I think that’s totally worth it. And, most of this training involves simple daily tasks, like:
- Exercise and meditation. Exercising releases endorphins, which can help with problem solving and boost creativity. Meditation can help you achieve inner calm and break down any mental barriers or limitations.
- Consume a diet rich in omega-3s and healthy fats. These can help keep dopamine levels in your brain active, as well as increase cerebral circulation.
- Precision affirmations. “We’ve all heard of affirmations: repeating positive statements to ourselves in order to believe it,” writes John Assaraf, the CEO of NeuroGym. “While that may sound good in theory, there is often a severe lack of specificity that can hinder results.” Instead, “make a clear, definitive statement about yourself as if it is already true, your subconscious mind takes over and will act in accordance with that belief.” This “will imprint these beliefs into new neural pathways.”
- Say your “Chief Aim” every morning and evening. Based on Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, “A definite chief aim is a specific, clearly-defined statement of purpose,” writes Dr. Julie Connor. “It has the power to guide your subconscious mind. It transforms your attitude from pessimism into positive expectation.” Write down your own “chief aim” and say it out loud every morning and evening. When I started my invoice company, I started every day by saying that I would become the best at this. Not quite there but getting there.
- Get plenty of sleep. Make sure that you get between 6 1/2 and 8 hours of quality sleep every night so that you're more attentive and focused.
- 15 minutes a day. Carve out 15 minutes of your day to learn something new or master a skill you already have. It will have a positive impact on your brain.
- Remove yourself from negative and stressful environments. According to Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinology professor at Stanford University, “stress can not only be stopped, but reversed once the source, psychological or physical, is removed or sufficiently reduced.” In other words, the physical environment around us plays a very important role in the health of our brains.
- Visualization. “Visualization is a powerful tool to retrain your subconscious mind, because it allows you to feel and experience a situation which hasn’t happened yet -- as if it were real,” writes Assaraf. In short, “if you are able to genuinely ‘see’ yourself as financially successful in your mind, your subconscious will process that as reality.”